4 Tips to Overcome the Overwhelm and Take Control of Your ‘To Do’ List - Runneth London

With the year end fast approaching, this is a time of year when most of us have moments of feeling completely overwhelmed.  Christmas is looming, and all the hopes and expectations of this special holiday period can bring anxiety for many parents – whether it’s the pressure of creating a magical experience for their kids or surviving the festivities with family. 

The end of the working year, or the end of a key business quarter, often brings its own work stresses, even before all the added client and office team celebrations.  Throw on top a good handful of child-related commitments – the end of year school play, a nursery ballet demonstration, the parents’ night out, sourcing nanny or teachers’ gifts, etc.  And finally, just to push us over the edge, nursery and school holidays begin in the thick of all this, around the middle of December.  It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed just thinking about one of these situations, let alone all of them piled on top of each other!

And of course this is not the only time of year that busy parents can feel overwhelmed.

But when the stress hits, when it all just seems too much, how can you get through it?

Here are our four simple tips:

  1. Breathe
  2. Walk, preferably outdoors
  3. Make a list
  4. Focus on a quick win

You can pick one of these ideas, or do all four.  It is up to you.  Just don’t get caught up in doing more if one or two is all you need.

1. Breathe

As yogis around the world know, breath can make a huge difference to both our physical and mental states.  As we get more stressed, we tend to take shorter and shallower breaths, which can lead to an increase in heart rate, as anxiety activates our ‘fight or flight’ response.  Adrenaline surges as our body perceives we’re under threat – useful when being chased by a tiger – but not a nice feeling when we’re simply trying to get through a busy day.

So the easiest way to take a break from the overwhelm, and get our heads back under control, is to mindfully control our breath.  Breathe in for a slow count of five, breathe out for slow count of ten.

Do it just three times in a row, and notice how – in less than a minute – your body might start to relax, your shoulders might start to drop, and your mind might go still.

If you want to make a slight rasping sound in the back of your throat as you exhale – not with your voice, just from the sound of the air escaping – this can also help.

Do another three breaths until you feel really calm.

Once your body has stepped out of fight mode, and your brain has had a chance to catch up, you may find that you more feel ready and able to manage the moment.

Kath’s extra tip: It works on kids too!  I have also found this to be an excellent technique to adopt when faced with a child in a tantrum or one who can’t go to sleep.  They will automatically mirror your breathing and, by breathing more slowly and deeply, they can really benefit from the calming effect it brings.

2. Walk, preferably outdoors

Walking is so simple that almost everyone can do it, at any time, in any weather, with no cost or special equipment.  And yet the benefit it can bring to an overwhelmed mind is incredible.  Especially if you can walk outside, which brings its own connection with nature and its proven mental health benefits.

How can you fit it into your busy day?

  • Take a three-minute detour down a prettier and leafier street on your way to or from work or the school gate
  • Bring an on-the-go lunch to work and spend your lunch break walking around a park, along the river, or in a tree-filled street nearby
  • Escape for a walk around the neighbourhood after your kids are in bed.

In a moment of panic, when it all just gets too much, make a quick excuse (I need to make a call, I need to buy a coffee, I need to pop out for an errand), and head outside for a five minute power walk.  Getting yourself out of a stressful situation will give you new perspective, and the physical and mental space will help you to cope better.

You may think you don’t have time to do this, but actually you will make time – you will realise that you can approach it another way, or that someone else could do this, or that this is not as important as something else which you decide to focus on instead.

a long to do list - write down your tasks

3. Make a list

It is an interesting truth, not often discussed, that people can act differently (to their norm) when placed under pressure.  We probably know it and we have probably seen it in people around us – the mild mannered boss who starts yelling, the office extrovert who hides away working silently at his desk, the early bird who becomes a night owl.  But how does stress impact on you?

Even the most organised person can find their systems falling apart when the pressure hits.  And sometimes the opposite – a disorganised person feels the need for more formal organisation just to survive.  In both instances, I find that people tend to feel more in control, and less overwhelmed, as soon as they can write a list.  In your head, ideas and tasks can go around and around, taking up a lot of space, creating worry, generating mental load.  Once those same ideas and tasks are written down, it is somehow easier to mentally process them, to prioritise them, to question them, to tackle them.

Start by just doing a brain dump.  Don’t worry about structuring it on your first draft, just simply get it all out.  Research shows that people who write down their goals are 10 times more likely to achieve them that those who don’t.

The Thank You note for Great Aunt Ethel’s gift to your no-longer baby, the work report that needs more research before finalising, the tax return, the schools applications, etc.  Just write them down.

Then start to order them.  I like to order them by where I will do the tasks, but some people find them better in wide categories or timescales.  However works best for you, just do it.  And if you are someone that never comes back to your lists and they are effectively abandoned once written, then do not worry – the exercise of writing them down has done its work in helping your mind to manage better.

Kath’s extra tip: If you find that your to-do list is overwhelming due to some big, scary, seemingly-impossible-to-achieve tasks, break each task down into small steps.  Then just put the first/next step of each task on your list.

4. Focus on a quick win first

Before you dive headlong into your to do list, stop and select just one thing that you can easily accomplish today.  Do this one task.  Tick it off your list.

Research shows that the process of achieving things is motivating and builds confidence, so we should exploit this benefit.  The more you do, in small steps, the more you will want to do.

For busy working parents, I often advise just attempting to do one thing per day.  One task that will take you forward materially.  Not necessarily the whole task, but a step towards achieving that overall task.  If you can get into the habit of thinking about what really needs to be done, and doing it, you will set yourself into a positive and productive cycle.  Some days you might get more done, and that’s great too, but at least you will make important steps forward every day and not get caught up in the mindless busy-ness of the everyday along the way.

Kath’s extra tip: If you think this is impossible because you have 50 things that you really have to get done today, then just stop for a few seconds and think about what you achieved over the past week.  If you can’t remember, or there wasn’t anything that notably improved your life, then that’s a good reason to try a new approach.

For an extra feel-good surge, you can keep a ‘have done’ list, noting each day what the important thing was that you did.  It can be a wonderful record to look back over, when you’ve had a tough day or a tricky week, to remind yourself how far you have come and all the good things you have achieved.

And if you’re struggling to imagine how you’ll get any of those extra tasks done, let alone find time for your own stuff, why not park the non-essentials and revisit them in January?   When Christmas and New Year are over, when the last of the decorations have been packed away and everyone is back in their rightful place after family visits, you’ll have more headspace to tackle that ‘to do’ list.


If you would like to focus on your career/changing jobs/returning to work in the new year, sign up to our FREE online Career Bootcamp, The January Jump, to get off to a flying start!







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